The Missouri Influencer Series

OK, Missouri Influencers: How would you bring transparency to political donations?

The Missouri Capitol.
The Missouri Capitol.

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Missouri Influencer Series

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The Star asked readers what’s the most important question facing Missouri in the category of political corruption/transparency.

Here’s what they came up with:

Do you think lobbyist gifts and political donations, including dark-money contributions, influence Missouri policy and policy makers in a way that’s detrimental to the state? If yes, what can be done to fix the situation?

And here’s how members of The Star’s Missouri Influencer panel answered:

Jennifer Lowry, chief toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital: “While I do not know the extent of the funds that have made it into politicians’ pockets, it is apparent that lobbyists and donations influence politicians and their voting practices. Clearly, politicians are more likely to vote with those who give money compared to those who don’t and disagree with their points of view. Unfortunately, there are enough voters who would agree with the lobbyists that give the politician the perception that more voters are in agreement with the choices made.

“Several ‘fixes’ could occur to ensure transparency. One would be to make all gifts and donations transparent and able to be tracked to the actual donor. This includes those donations that are made from anonymous sites. Second, there needs to be a cap on all gifts and donations at lower levels than currently exist. Politicians should be required to publicly share the donor list on their public website and the amounts provided to them.

“Lastly, but most importantly, all politicians should attempt to maintain integrity and recognize when they are being bought to further their own gain and those of the few over the majority and most vulnerable. This ‘integrity clause’ should be foremost in all politicians’ minds where the question isn’t who does the vote help, but rather, who will the vote hurt (and is it really worth it). In many situations the risk far outweighs the benefit and should be rethought, even at the risk of losing money in one’s pocket.”

Gregg Keller, principal of Atlas Strategy Group: “The Left wants to outlaw ordinary citizens from taking part in public policy discussions, so they coin the term ‘dark money’ to make those discussions seem bad. They’d prefer the old way, where only liberal editorial pages and labor unions could participate in such ways. We need more citizen participation in our policy discussions, not less.”

Patrick Tuohey, Show-Me Institute director of municipal policy: “I am confident that those giving gifts and making political donations are convinced that such things influence policy. Otherwise, why bother? I don’t know if it is necessarily detrimental, but it should be transparent.”

Richard Martin, director of government affairs for JE Dunn Construction, former political consultant: “Yes. Lobbyist gifts should be eliminated entirely. And there should be no ‘dark-money’ contributions in Missouri. If any entity or candidate wants to raise money all contributions no matter the committee must be reported within 30 days of their receipt. And sooner as an election day nears.”

Alissia Canady, Kansas City Council member: “There needs to be an ethics study to review if there’s a significant correlation to votes on critical issues and political donations to determine if there is an undue influence. Also, most importantly, all political donors should be disclosed as well as any business interest they may have, including money received from PACs.”

Jay Nixon, former governor: “These are 3 different zones of risk. By far, dark money presents the largest risk to our democracy.

“Focusing on making progress, and empowering citizen initiatives, is vital.”

Sly James, Kansas City mayor: “Yes. Mandate identification of donors, recipients and uses of the money.”

Scott Charton, CEO of Charton Communications: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant — transparency about sources of political funding can help address growing distrust and cynicism about our political system.”

Woody Cozad, lobbyist and former state GOP chairman: “Lobbyists’ gifts have no visible effect and are usually very modest things such as a lunch or dinner. Very large donations above one million dollars do have an effect, whether public or dark. The effect is that the legislature spends time and energy on issues that matter to these big donors. The legislature does NOT pass the bills those donors want except where there is some level of public support for them. Finally, rid yourself of the fixation on money. The public school lobby is not a major donor, but it is the most powerful interest group in Jefferson City. It successfully opposes any effort to introduce accountability into our schools. Our schools are so poor that they’re a leading obstacle to economic growth, but the public school lobby can stop any effort to improve them.”

CiCi Rojas, partner and president of Tico Productions LLC and Tico Sports: “Yes. Only stringent limits and absolute transparency will begin to address it.”

Mike Burke, lawyer and former member of the Kansas City Council: “Yes. There should be limits on lobbyist gifts, including travel. Dark money needs to be eliminated so that donations are fully transparent. We should reinstate the cap on political donations.”

Luis Cordoba, Kansas City Public Schools’ chief student support and intervention officer: “I do believe that lobbyist gifts and donations to politicians, including dark money, influence, to a large degree, politicians to compromise a vote.

“What can be done to fix it? The Missouri General Assembly would have to curb this type of behavior through enacting legislation that prohibits that.”

Jack Danforth, former U.S. senator: “Yes. The best reform, given Supreme Court decisions, would be improved transparency about the gifts and contributions.”

Duke Dujakovich, president of Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO: “Lawmakers in Missouri are bought and controlled by big money. For proof, look no further than the Attorney General’s refusal to investigate a man who writes him campaign checks. Passage of Amendment 1, known as Clean Missouri, would be the first step in the right direction to end these embarrassing practices.”

Crosby Kemper III, director of Kansas City Public Library, co-founder of Show-Me Institute: “Yes, of course. Everyone believes the money in the system supports things they disagree with except when it’s spent on things they agree with. I’m in favor of more transparency and also more media focus on disclosing local interests at work. The Star needs to pay as much attention to the donors in local races as it does state issues.”

Bob Holden, former governor: “Yes. All contributions should be made public and all donors listed. No dark money. I would hope that we could have contribution limits too. TOTAL openness.”

James Harris, political strategist: “I do not think lobbyist gifts sway lawmakers. Often, trade associations have constituents in Jefferson City and want to sit down with lawmakers for a meal, and I think this is understandable. I have never seen a lawmaker sell out over a hamburger.

“On the issue of so-called ‘dark money,’ I think that is a loaded term that is often used by liberals to refer to groups they disagree with politically. Liberals have sought to bully conservatives into silence and restrict conservative groups’ free speech rights, and that is unacceptable and irresponsible.

“I would suggest that the passage of Amendment 2 in 2016 created a less transparent campaign finance environment. The adoption of Clean Missouri would make the process even less transparent and give more power to special interests, as candidates would be more dependent on their support for independent expenditures.”

Jason Grill, media, public affairs and crisis communications consultant: “As far as state and local politics, I don’t believe lobbyist gifts truly influence policy makers decisions as a whole. A lunch with fellow legislators or a ticket to a sporting event with colleagues doesn’t change the way someone votes. Are there a few bad apples in every group, possibly yes. However, lobbyist gifts in Kansas City and in the State of Missouri don’t influence policy. More transparency in political donations is a good thing and dark-money contributions have to be brought to light in order to continue to promote ethical behavior in politics.”

Jane Dueker, lawyer, radio host and former political adviser: “Dark money is very influential and detrimental. For example, Greitens used the large amounts of dark money to threaten legislators. A few stood up to it but most were afraid of it. First, current ethics laws need to be enforced. If any non-profit spends primarily for the benefit of one candidate (eg. A New Missouri for Eric Greitens), then it should be sanctioned as a campaign committee that failed to properly register with the Missouri Ethics Commission and all of its spending and contributions need to be made public. Not sure if there is a legal way to completely stop flow of dark money. Transparency may be the only recourse. Could Missouri require that any non-profits who donate or spend political money in Missouri reveal their donors for such money?”

Kay Barnes, former mayor of Kansas City, senior director for university engagement at Park University: “I believe that the most egregious opportunities for negatively influencing elections is through dark-money contributions. As a result, the public has no way to assess the level of influence being exerted on an officeholder as a result of those kinds of contributions.”

Michael Barrett, director, Missouri State Public Defender: “Yes. Of course it does. I’d prefer to see publicly funded elections, myself, but who can really argue with full transparency. Every dollar a candidate receives, either directly or indirectly should be disclosed, whether it is soft money, dark money or Monopoly money.”

Leland Shurin, an attorney and chairman of the Kansas City Police Board: “Of course such contributions influence policy; and of course it has a detrimental effect on Missourians. If not, why would the donators names be kept secret?? The fix is simple but the politicians won’t do it: Every donation must be disclosed within 24 hours of receipt and the disclosure lists the original donator, not just the entity through which the donation is made. And lobbyist gifts and donations are made solely for acceptance by the legislators of the lobbyist’s position, which has nothing to do with the public’s best interest.”

Jeff Simon, managing partner, Husch Blackwell: “It is difficult to answer this question without more information, such as who gave how much to whom and when. This is the problem with dark money contributions — we don’t have any of this information. Unknown amounts of money given by unknown persons with unknown agendas certainly creates an appearance of impropriety and a fecund environment for improper influence, which is why the light should be able to shine on all contributions to or for the benefit of any candidate or office holder. If there is nothing improper, then there is no reason not to disclose, right?”

John Hancock, political consultant, former Missouri GOP chairman: “Dark money is antithetical to good ethics. I favor allowing unlimited donations directly to candidate campaigns with complete transparency.”

Chris Maples, interim chancellor at Missouri University for Science & Technology: “I do believe that lobbyist gifts and political donations can influence Missouri policy and policy makers. Whether or not that is detrimental to the state often is a matter of perspective and agreement or not with the policy. Identifying donations and linking them with potential policy legislation is probably the best way to modify the process for the good of everyone in Missouri.”

Ken Novak, UMKC professor of criminal justice and criminology: “I have no idea — but that’s the point, isn’t it? Full transparency is critical in order to promote legitimacy within public service. We don’t know whether, or to what degree, gifts or political donations impact decision making. But since it is very reasonable to believe they could, maximum transparency is necessary.”

Reza Derakshani, EyeVerify developer: “Yes. Full disclosures easily available to the public (e.g. having to list the top donors in any political ad).”

Quinton Lucas, Kansas City Council member: “Absolutely, lobbyist gifts and and political donations influence Missouri policy.”

Mike Talboy, former state legislator and director of government affairs for Burns & McDonnell: “The influx of dark money into our political system and the hidden, unchecked torrents of money are a tremendous threat to our system of government. Anonymous donors exerting influence under the cloak of secrecy hurt not only elections without any transparency to see who is influencing policy. The public should know who inside this country is financing which candidates and elected officials. This debate is always couched in a First Amendment basis. If that is the case, transparency is an absolute necessity about who is speaking with money.”

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City: “Yes. We can fix the situation by passing the Clean Missouri legislation that will be on the ballot this fall. We need to institute reasonable limitations on campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists. This, coupled with an abundance of transparency, will minimize unethical influence on policy makers. Dark money loopholes should be closed. All donors, no matter their party affiliation, or whether they lean to the left or the right, should be disclosed.”

Ryan Silvey, Missouri Public Service commissioner and former state senator: “Dark money is by far the greatest threat to our system currently. Donors being able to influence elections without transparency for the people to hold them or the candidates they support accountable is not healthy at all. For instance, if the captains of industry want to push policy that is harmful to their employees or customers, the public should know so they can pull the free market levers available to them in response. You cannot have balance without transparency.”

Jean Paul Bradshaw, lawyer and former U.S. attorney: “I think there are situations where gifts and donations do affect votes or policies. Fixing it is more complicated than simply banning gifts or adopting campaign donation limits. I do not believe small gifts are an issue because every group on every side of an issue participates in this practice. The bigger issue is on the campaign finance side. The issue with dark money is difficult because of protections that exist in federal law for contributors to not-for-profit entities. I believe that disclosure of contributors is the most important issue. The other issue is to have tighter limits on what candidates and office holders can do with balances left in their candidate committees once they are no longer a candidate. There should be tight time frames for making donations or contributions.”

Deb Hermann, former Kansas City Council member and CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc.: “Yes. The legislature could easily pass laws prohibiting or limiting these contributions if they had the political will.”

Pam Whiting, vice president for communications, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce: “Yes. They must be limited by legislative means.”

Patrick Ishmael, director of government accountability for the Show-Me Institute: “Legislators should make it harder for elected officials to become lobbyists soon after they leave office. There should be no ambiguity about who is working for who, and when.”

Scott Wagner, Kansas City Council member: “Yes. Eliminate third-party political action committees and remove 501(c)(3) status from those entities that spend money on elections. This would invite a court challenge, no doubt.”

John Fierro, Kansas City Public Schools board member: “Absolutely, an inability to know the names of individuals and/or organizations tied to dark-money allows outside, anonymous influence. The best way to fix the situation is to require the names of individuals tied to dark money contributions. In this day of social media, voters can research the values of these dark-money donors and determine the real motives of political candidates.

“Lobbyist gifts and political donations, under the current political system, create an uneven playing field for those running for office. Since the limitations on political contributions vary state by state, we see that new political candidates struggle to gain the same monetary support as those already in the political arena. This results in the inequity of financial contributions that works against electing minorities, such as women and Hispanics, into political office. Setting a limit for campaign contributions would help provide a more even playing field for those underrepresented in their political campaigns.

“The second important issue to address regarding lobbyist gifts and political donations is related to transparency. Political campaigns should place a high value on transparency, especially given the current political climate. The easiest way for campaigns to ensure transparency is to make their campaign donations and donor names public. Donor lists help the public to understand the values and true motives of the political campaign. One cannot fully understand a candidate’s political intentions until they know who is supporting them financially.”

Thomas Curran, president, Rockhurst University: “Yes, gifts and political donations from lobbyists can influence policy makers. Because the courts consider contributions as speech, the issue of the contributions becomes more of a concern as the amounts increase.

“Regulation of the amounts and ways these contributions can be made must be part of making sure that this expression of democracy is not tilted towards one group over another.”

Dianne Lynch, president, Stephens College: “Truth is, voters don’t know the answer to that question — and that’s the problem. As citizens, we have a right to know how our elected representatives are making decisions about the people’s business — and that means full disclosure and genuine transparency.”

Mark Bryant, lawyer, former Kansas City Council member: “I think they influence the nature and substance of legislation that is adopted in our state and affects banking legislation, insurance legislation, health insurance — it affects almost every facet of life, and the influence of unlimited campaign contributions and dark money influence the legislation that we get. The only way to limit that is to cap the amount of contributions that can be made and maximize the influence of grassroots efforts, campaign funding in future elections.”

“I think lobbyist gifts are also a problem. I think reasonable limits can be adopted to provide lobbyists with access to elected officials for things such as lunches or breakfasts, but beyond that I think they should be limited. And I think gifts for breakfast and lunch only for purposes of providing access during times that the elected official is not otherwise committed to legislative hearings or committee meetings. Beyond that, I don’t think lobbyists should make gifts, and I think they have a perverse influence on our government.”

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